Defining the Future for the Class of 2011

Congratulations to the class of 2011. You’ve earned the gratification of moving your tassel from one side of the cap to the other.

What does the future hold? What is out there? You’ll be told to find yourself, follow your passion, and chase your goals. And many of you will wonder what those are. There’s debt, perhaps an entry level job, and monthly bills. Before you can commit to your boundless dreams you already have these torments and everything that goes along with it. Chances are you’ll be figuring out credit cards, bad bosses, and hung over early morning meetings. Every day is a new day.

If you learned anything in school, I hope you’ve learned how to think. To ask why? Anyone can follow directions, good thinkers are people who understand why they exist. Great thinkers design the instructions. What is the path? What are the steps? “If this happens, then do this” and the decision tree associated with it. Working through these scenarios develops an ability to cope with complexity. Said another way – for greater enlightenment, do you want a happy meal toy or a jet engine?

And I beg you to create something. The world is a better place when people work to assemble rather than tear apart. If you’re a business person I’d start with thinking about value proposition. Think about a situation and how things work together. What is the context for which a transaction operates? Consider the decisions people are making and the information they are using. What drives them to act and is the desired behavior? Is there a status quo? Have people accepted things as they are?

The world you experience is very different than the world I know. And that is good. There are generally two types of knowledge explicit and tacit.

  • Explicit Knowledge – is knowledge that has been or can be articulated, codified, and stored in certain media. It can be readily transmitted to others. The information contained in encyclopedias (including Wikipedia) are good examples of explicit knowledge.
  • Tacit Knowledge – involves learning and skill but in a way that is difficult to transfer from one person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it. Tacit knowledge can consist of habits and culture that we do not recognize in ourselves. I can tell you how to ride a bicycle, but you won’t know how until you learn to balance.

Graduation means you’ve probably spent close to $1,000 on books over the last few years acquiring explicit knowledge. You’ve studied in your dorm room and memorized facts about amortization. You’ve read what the top of Kilimanjaro looks like.

Now is the time to look yourself. It doesn’t have to be the top of a mountain, a high point works just fine. Experience the edge and feel the risk. Trace the path you’ve taken to this simple point. Once you’ve climbed one high point, you’ll climb another and another.

Nothing worth doing is easy and life isn’t fair. Your experience is unique, always ask why, and focus on creating something, anything. And remember, every day is a new day.

Moved to an Emotional Brink?

I try to include a human element to my posts. I like people; I like to know what makes them tick. I love someone who is so passionate that they make themselves heartbreakingly vulnerable. You see it most often in sports with the defeated, whether it’s a tennis player or a basketball player slouched over in pure exhaustion, not necessarily from the effort but from the emotional toll. You know they are searching for what went wrong.

I believe one of the most powerful things in the world is someone who has collapsed to their knees, shoulders drawn in, head low, and is weeping because of a loss of a loved one. As awful as this is, I quietly celebrate it. At rare times, that is what life is all about. To be moved to an emotional brink. The person who is gone must have brought such joy, must have made such an impression, that a future without him or her is simply unimaginable.

I write this because a friend of mine from High School has been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Something called Clear Cell Sarcoma (CCS). Bret, my teammate in several sports, has documented his experience on a blog http://brethoefen.wordpress.com/ and I suggest checking out “My Story.”

What makes Bret’s account so gripping is that he is the type of guy with a definitive essence. Perhaps there is someone out there that doesn’t like him, but I doubt it. He’s very likable, genuine. His blog proves it by literally and figuratively showing you the innards of someone who can see the last few grains of sand in his hour glass.

As you read his tale there is a point where it switches and it stops being about your friend and it becomes self reflective. You ask yourself what would I do? You think about your family and about your future. Until you really consider your mortality you have passive hope: “Tomorrow I’ll begin my book,” “I’ll start working out next week,” “I’ll get a big raise.” But when you’re told you have a few months, you can’t wait. Very few people are ever sincerely satisfied. Those that are find peace. It’s like they won the game.

Each one of us only has so many numbered days. Chances are you’ll be brought to our knees at least once, maybe more. It reminds me of song lyric I love:

Love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Hallelujah, Hallelujah

How Pleasure Works – A Book Review

Quick Take: This book goes into the depths of the mind and looks for what feeds the source or core of happiness. There are stories of art theft, belching contests, bed pans, and cannibalism and I bet none of these you’d put on par with a birthday cake. And that is the point of the book, pleasure is not a straight forward emotion. A man paid $772,500 for a set of golf clubs. It makes you wonder why?  Hint – they were John F. Kennedy’s (if you’re still thinking “so what” then this book is really for you). Either way, I enjoyed it.

Detail Review: Paul Bloom is a psychologist at Yale University. He’s the author of other books, but those have a slightly different take on the brain: how it develops in regards to language. I think because this isn’t his first take, he writes in a style that is easy to read. His narratives are clear and support his point very well. In a world where books are taken in 15 minutes at a time, this is a good quality to have.

I normally start with the aesthetics. The hard cover has a simple white sleeve with the title, the subtitle, the author’s name and then a picture of an oyster with a pearl. I think that’s a metaphor for cracking open the mind and finding treasure. I like the less is more approach, but I’ve heard white is the worst choice because it shows smudges and dirt easily. That may be true, but I like it. The font is medium to large in size and the book is a solid 227 pages counting the preface.

The book ultimately is a cross between psychology and philosophy and it centers on something called essence. And as a psychologist he has many studies supporting his argument. But essence is as much a philosophic topic as anything. You can refer to it as the life force, the soul, or the mass effect of billions of neurons firing in a self aware brain. Cultivating one’s own essence is the basis of pleasure. Whether it’s through the adoption of other people’s essence or the exercise of your own. As Bloom states in the preface:

     There is an animal aspect o human pleasure. When I come back from a run with my dog, I collapse onto the sofa, she onto her dog bed. I drink a glass of cold water, she laps from her bowl, and we’re both a lot happier.
     This book is about more mysterious pleasures. Some teenage girls enjoy cutting themselves with razors; some men pay good money to be spanked by prostitutes. The average American spends over four hours a day watching television. The thought of sex with a virgin is intensely arousing to many men. Abstract art can sell for millions of dollars. Young children enjoy playing with imaginary friends and can be comforted by security blankets. People slow their cars to look at gory accidents, and go to movies that make them cry.
     Some of the pleasures that I will discuss are uniquely human, such as art, music, fiction, masochism, and religion. Others, such as food and sex, are not, but I will argue that the pleasure that humans get from these activities is substantially different from that of other creatures.

There’s great analysis of the value of art, particularly how a copy, or forgery, is no where near as valuable as an original. If I know Paul Cezanne painted a piece in my collection, then I know it’s worth more than if someone else painted in a similar style. The reason is because I know Cezanne was an artistic genius. The means in which he assembled color, stroke, and arrangement shows a mind – an essence – that no one else originally came up with. Jackson Pollock is the ultimate test for this. His art is labeled abstract expressionism. I see paint splats, but others see a chaotic reflection of the subconscious and because of that, he is heralded.

And the author doesn’t really get into it, but I think portraits are the ultimate in revealing essence, especially if they are self portraits. For the Seinfeld fans out there, you’ll remember an episode where Jerry dates a painter. The painter does a portrait of Kramer and when George asks Jerry why, he responds “She sees something in him.” Kramer has an essence and the painter captures it. Later in the story an older couple is viewing the portrait, “The Kramer,” and has this exchange:

Although this is comedic, it’s true. Art isn’t only about beauty. There’s a pull of something greater than a cloth with ink on it. Performance art and shock are continually testing society.

There’s a story called Where the Red Fern Grows. It’s about a couple of coon hound dogs befriended by a little boy. It’s an early adolescents tale. My sixth grade English teacher read it to my class of 14. It’s over 20 years later and I can’t remember her name, but I do remember the entire class welling up in tears as the story unfolded. We were saddened by what happened, but this fictional story was enjoyed by each one of us.

This pleasure resonates in the imagination of everyone, be it sappy love stories, video games, horror movies, or some other mental escape. I agree with the author that this is a hold over from the evolution of planning. He doesn’t really discuss it, but the way the brain is structured is by layers, somewhat like it grew from the center out. The center is the emotional core. Emotion is great for survival, so it makes sense. The prefrontal cortex and other cognitive regions evolved on top of the emotional engine. It’s kind of like we take in all this data via our senses, but the brain needs a way to answer the “so what?” Stories are powerful because they tap the emotional center and push for action. Imagination is a means for practicing these situations and the strange pleasure it elicits is motivation.

I devise fantasy lands of unicorns and I dream of taking over the world. Each of these escapes adds to my essence.

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Creative Expressions – 3D Sidewalk Chalk

I’m late on this one, but impressed all the same. I have a couple of young children who play with sidewalk chalk and when they draw smiley faces I consider it good.

Two guys from Europe are best known for this work – U.K. artist Julian Beever and German artist Edgar Mueller.

Track Your Pizza and Say Thank You

Today I was pleasantly surprised by two companies. One company is being innovative and the other is just being classy.

I ordered a pizza online. The deal was two topping, two medium pizzas. Supposedly, this company has a new recipe for it’s pizza. Anyway, I ordered and when I completed my order I was presented with a process time-line with updates. It’s very simple, but it allowed me to know when to expect the delivery man to show up. It also had little blurbs like “Jason is hand tossing your custom order now” below it.

This Dominos Pizza innovation reminds me of package tracking through Fedex or UPS. I love getting a link and being able to follow whatever it is I ordered. Now pizza is the same way.

The other company that impressed me is Brighton. They sell jewelry, the charms type. My wife bought a bracelet with some charms on it. About 5 days later we got a hand written thank you note from the sales person. It was a good personal touch, unexpected, and now we have some form of relationship with them.

A Time of Year to Ask “What could I have done better?”

It’s a fun time of year. The NCAA Tournament is going on which is the ultimate pass/fail test in sports. There are no second chances. As the saying goes “survive and advance.”

This year there are several higher seeds that won two games and are part of the Sweet 16. One of those schools is Cornell, an ivy league school located in the finger lake region of NY. Cornell earlier in the season gave number one seed Syracuse a test and also took recently beaten Kansas to the wire as well. They are a good team.

I’m from the finger lake region of NY as well and have been to Ithaca, the hilly city where Cornell is located. In 1999 I went to visit a friend who gave me a tour. We drove around the beautiful gorges where trees and streams create a serene atmosphere. Plenty of hiking trails are outlined. We pulled over to a particular bridge and my buddy said this is where the Cornell students kill themselves. What did he just say? Kill themselves? In the late 1990s Cornell experienced a rash of suicides. They responded with an education campaign and it was mostly effective… well, until recently.

There are six confirmed cases of suicides over the last few months. More than one occurred where we pulled over a little more than 10 years ago.

College can be stressful: being constantly measured and perfect is so rare. Kids are now tested just to get into kindergarten, so it isn’t surprising to see mental health issues arise periodically. Perhaps the economic environment has something to do with it. I don’t know.

The NY Times is running a blog called The Choice which is written by Eric Bates. He is outlining the anxiety felt over college acceptance. He rhetorically asks “What could I have done better?”

“EL GRANDE BIGOTE” Victory

It has been too long since I’ve mentioned one of my favorite charity organizations – Donorschoose.org. I’m sure giving is down with the economic conditions – I know I’m guilty – but Donorschoose has such a great business model and their people are so creative. Below is an email from a friend of mine: Mike “EL GRANDE BIGOTE” Szarowicz. As you can tell he has a lot of fun with the drive and students benefit. I especially love the mustache logo.

Here’s how I like to think about it though – $50 is not memorable, but I won’t forget Mike’s costume and I know that kids, who have a trailer as a classroom, just got four bean bag chairs to read in.

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To my loyal mustache aficionados:

Another tremendously successful Mustaches for Kids campaign is in the books!   Our Charlotte Chapter raised over $58,000 and impacted the lives of over 26,000 students.  Thank you, thank you, thank you for all of your support.  Every year I’m amazed by the generosity of my friends and colleagues (and by the power of the MUSTACHE)!

All of your help also allowed me to retain my “Top Fundraiser” crown with $5,516 raised.  Here’s the series of pictures we all hoped to see:

Three-peat!!!

And if you’re of sane mind you’re likely asking yourself – “what the heck is that outfit on the right?!?!”  Well, that’s my 2010 Mustache Persona – “El Grande Bigote”.  He was inspired by a Hispanic wrestling show I saw in LA about 11 months ago.

Here are some close-ups:

   

The second picture there is now my facebook profile.  And that’s right – that’s a customized “E.G.B” cape and “El Grange Bigote” logo.  I owe credit on the cape to my lovely and talented wife Katie.  The logo I made myself.  I promised I’d top the prior two year’s costumes and in my mind I delivered.  I’m very concerned about 2011. 

Alas, I did not win best costume, as the police officer below took home the big prize:

 

Those are the five “best costume” finalists.  I’ll let you decide if the judges made the right decision.  [Note my boots!]

Oh well, it was another great year.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my crazy pictures.  I know our local schoolteachers and students are extremely grateful for everything we’ve done in this campaign.

Until next year…..

Michael
[a.k.a. “EL GRANDE BIGOTE”]